Azarenka practices to put heat back into game
(Reuters) - Victoria Azarenka's quest for a third successive Australian Open title got off to a slow start in baking temperatures on Tuesday, so instead of heading for an ice bath after her first round win over Johanna Larsson she headed back out to practice.
With temperatures tipping 40 Celsius (104F) at Melbourne Park, the 24-year-old Belarusian looked out of sorts in the opening stages, giving the feisty Swede two opportunities to serve for the first set.
Despite battling back to win a tie-break 7-2 and then cruising through the second set to complete a 7-6 6-2 win, her patchy performance early on convinced Azarenka she had to brave the heat once more to work on her game.
"I mean, it's not easy, those conditions. You can't escape those. It's pretty hot out there," the world number two told reporters after her practice session.
"I think ... the ball with the conditions bounce a lot different and a lot higher, which suited her.
"It took me a little bit of time to just adapt and find my range and find my hitting zone.
"Sometimes it can be tricky, you know, to just find your range, as it was today a little bit."
Azarenka is bidding to become the first woman to win three successive Australian Open titles since Martina Hingis achieved the feat from 1997-99.
However, her performance in the first set would have done little to frighten her challengers for the title, particularly hot favorite Serena Williams.
Larsson, ranked 91st in the world, had chances to serve out the first set when leading 5-4 then 6-5, only for Azarenka to break back both times and force the tie-break.
The Swede's resolve appeared to melt away in the heat, as the heavy topspin forehands that had been forcing Azarenka deep into the backcourt started to sail long and wide, and the world number two raced to a 4-0 lead she never looked like relinquishing.
Azarenka sealed the first set after 72 minutes, then broke to love in the third game of the second to give her the buffer she needed and cantered to victory in 106 minutes.
"She really played well. She went out for her shots (and) I was expecting a tough match," Azarenka added of the clash in the midday heat that was reportedly causing plastic water bottles to melt.
"It's never easy .. when you play somebody who is probably a lot higher than you are in rankings, they just have nothing to lose."
Azarenka, who faces Czech Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova in the second round, said she would continue her practice routine on Wednesday, even though temperatures are expected to be over 40C again.
"Oh no, no, I will definitely go and practice," she said when asked if it might be better to stay out of the Melbourne heat. "You've got to prepare yourself.
"Maybe I won't hit for two hours, but definitely going to go out ... just try to keep the things that has been working before, what I was working on in Brisbane and my off season, and just try to reproduce it more and more and be disciplined with that."
(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Peter Rutherford)